MILTON — Gov. Scott Walker is dismissing fresh criticism from his former transportation chief, who says Walker isn’t leveling with Wisconsinites about the consequences of his approach to funding the state’s transportation system.
In a Tuesday interview with the Wisconsin State Journal, Mark Gottlieb, a Republican who led the state Department of Transportation from 2011 to 2017, also said Walker is “fear-mongering” by claiming his campaign opponent, Democrat Tony Evers, could raise the gas tax by as much as a dollar per gallon.
Those comments came shortly before Walker appeared at a Milton Interstate rest stop Tuesday, touting his expedited plans for part of the Interstate 39-90 project in Dane and Rock counties.
How to pay for roads and bridges has been a longstanding political flashpoint for Walker. Gottlieb’s latest remarks are an indicator the issue will not abate as the general election nears.
Earlier in the campaign, Evers had refused to rule out any options in how to pay for roads, including raising the state’s 32.9 cent-per-gallon gas tax by a $1. More recently, Evers called the notion that he would support such an increase “ridiculous.”
Speaking Tuesday, Gottlieb also called the concept “totally ridiculous” and said Walker shouldn’t be citing it in a campaign ad.
“It’s either completely irresponsible or it shows a lack of understanding of the budget in general,” Gottlieb said.
Walker fired back at the Milton event: “What’s ridiculous is Tony Evers is just expecting the voters to take a ‘trust me’ approach when it comes to taxes.”
Evers’ campaign did not respond Tuesday to a request for comment.
Addressing Gottlieb’s criticism about the implications of Walker’s transportation funding approach, Walker said, “I just fundamentally disagree with him.”
“The reports that many people allude to are reports they paid for, overwhelmingly, by the same special interests that are running ads attacking us on transportation,” Walker said. “If the media’s now using reports that are paid for by groups as the base, as their foundation, maybe I should go out and create a group and pay for my own study.”
Gottlieb has sharply contested suggestions that interest groups are behind his conclusions, saying they instead are underpinned by years of Wisconsin DOT engineering and study, and by public input.
Gottlieb said Walker should acknowledge the consequences of his opposition to a revenue infusion for roads, bridges and transit — most of the state funding for which comes from fuel taxes and vehicle registration fees.
“By any measure … the result is that we’re not going to have enough revenue to meet our needs,” Gottlieb said. “Congestion and delay are going to increase. That is fact.
“If that’s your position, accept the consequences of that.”
Gottlieb previously criticized Walker in an interview with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, saying the governor has been “increasingly inaccurate” in describing funding for the state highway system.
Gottlieb said Tuesday he is not affiliated with Evers’ campaign but declined to say who he’s supporting in the election. He is not the first former Walker ally to speak out against him during this campaign: two other former Walker Cabinet secretaries have cut campaign videos for Evers criticizing the governor.
Walker firm on gas tax
Walker signaled Tuesday that if re-elected, he would maintain his opposition to a gas-tax increase not offset by a tax cut elsewhere.
“I’m making that same promise right now: I will never raise the gas tax without a corresponding or greater decrease in the overall tax burden,” Walker said.
Walker has sought other ways to play offense on transportation. On Monday Walker announced a plan, if re-elected, to boost state aid for county roads as part of the next state budget. That plan would increase the share of aid the state supplies to counties, primarily to maintain county roads, to 30 percent. The percentage was about 17 percent in 2017, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau.
Walker on Tuesday declined to say if he would offer a similar boost for municipal road aid.
Dan Fedderly, who directs the Wisconsin County Highway Association, said the county funding boost proposed by Walker would cost the state about $114 million over a two-year budget cycle. Fedderly said counties welcome the money, but he’s skeptical how Walker would pay for it — and wonders if it could come at the expense of other streams of state transportation funding to local governments.
Asked Tuesday how he would fund the increase, Walker didn’t offer details, saying “We’ve got the budget to be able to do that.”
Disagreement among Republicans on transportation funding was the key factor last year in a 10-week delay of passage of the state’s current budget. Assembly Republican leaders, much like Gottlieb, have cited data from Walker’s own DOT to contend the state’s road and bridge network will deteriorate badly in the next decade without a funding infusion to match or outpace inflation.
Walker announced Tuesday that a six-mile stretch of the I-39-90 project, north of Janesville, will be completed a year earlier than planned, in 2020. The entire project — which is widening the Interstate to at least three lanes each way for 45 miles from Madison to the Illinois line — remains set for completion in 2021.
Walker also defended his DOT’s preferred plan for the final stage of the I-39-90 project: rebuilding and reconfiguring its interchange with the Madison Beltline.
Local officials, including Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, and transportation groups have slammed the plan, saying it will create a new bottleneck at one of Dane County’s busiest interchanges.
Walker said he doesn’t believe the plan will do that and that federal transportation officials are pleased with it.
“Some of the people offering criticism … may not fully understand the way that that’s configured,” Walker said.
In addition to funding concerns, the state DOT also has been criticized for operating more secretively since Dave Ross was named to succeed Gottlieb, who resigned, in early 2017.
Fedderly said Walker’s DOT since 2017 has become more secretive and failed to communicate with its partners at the local level. As a result, he said their relationships with the department have deteriorated.
In recent weeks, local planning organizations have clashed with the department about an accounting change that those organizations say may have shortchanged them on federal transportation funds the state DOT is supposed to relay to them. The state DOT disputes that. And the fiscal bureau, in a recent memo, concluded that despite widespread confusion about the funds, all recipients “should receive their total allocation amount over the schedule period.”